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Bartending School vs. Experience: How to Land a Job Behind the Bar

Bartending School vs. Experience: How to Land a Job Behind the Bar

Last updated: September 16, 2019
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If you’re a pro with drinks and great with people, becoming a bartender may the perfect career path for you. But getting behind the bar isn’t as easy as filling out an application and getting to work. Your age, work experience, and bartending school experience all factor into whether or not you qualify for a bartending job.

There are many paths to becoming a bartender, but each comes with its own hurdles for you to pass. Understanding your options will help you choose a starting point and know exactly what to expect.

Once you make it into the industry, you’ll have an exciting career ahead of you that may soon give you creative freedom, a flexible schedule, and great pay.

Whether you’re seeking a part-time job for extra cash or a full-time career, we’ll help you understand how to become a bartender and master the craft.

What Is an Average Bartender Salary?

Bar with a jar full of tips

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay of a bartender in the United States is $22,550 per year, or $10.84 per hour when translated to an hourly wage. While this face value may seem low, there are plenty of reasons to still pursue this career.

First, it’s important to remember that although your average wage is technically lower than what  Uber drivers make, you’re still earning more than most contractors in the gig economy. This is because most bartenders are classified as traditional employees, which means it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever have to pay self-employment taxes or be responsible for any business expenses.

Second, the low median pay takes into account how much money all bartenders make. This includes people in bartending careers that mainly rely on pre-made drink recipes and require little to no prior experience — think bartenders at your local Olive Garden or Applebee’s.

Average salaries also often fail to account for differences in the types of bars and their location. Bartenders in New York and San Francisco will naturally have higher hourly wages due to higher cost of living, while those in party cities like Miami and Las Vegas tend to get higher tips.

In fact, tips are an incredibly large part of a bartender’s salary, and this frequently unreported income can boost your income to the $45,000 to $75,000 range. Working at a high-end bar will often allow you to earn both high wages and large tips.

Finally, many bartenders who are serious about advancing in the industry can easily make it out of the median. With more years of experience, you’ll surpass the part-time earners and make a comfortable living in a fun and social job.

Is Bartending School Worth It?

Bartender making drinks

If you want to be a bartender, you’ll need skills that can be applied on the job before you even start. Bartending school can provide a great starting point to launch your career.

Bartending school is beneficial for anyone who is brand new to the bar environment — it will help you get comfortable with all the basics. You’ll typically learn about everything from proper glassware and mixology practices to local regulations and industry lingo in about 40 hours of bartending classes.

Another great benefit of bartending school is that it will provide opportunities to network with professionals who may be interested in hiring students after they earn their bartender certification.

Plus, many schools offer job placement assistance, as well. For example, the Professional Bartending School offers a complete job placement program for students who complete all their bartending courses.

However, it’s important to know that attending a bartender school is not a replacement for real-world experience. It’s more of an alcohol server training program that ensures you won’t be falling on your face once you’re in a professional setting.

Most bar owners would much rather hire someone with a few months of experience at a real bar than a recent graduate with no in-house experience at all.

This is because a professional bartender is expected to do more than put together popular drinks. Sure, you can memorize drink recipes and laws. But knowing how to handle a full bar, rowdy customers,  time management, and pressure is just as valuable.

That said, bartending school may be worth it if you’re dedicated to becoming a bartender, feel completely inexperienced, and don’t know where to start.

How to Become a Bartender

If most bartenders don’t need to attend bartending school to get a job, what’s the most common path to a successful career? In this section, we’ll go over the basic requirements for you to qualify for a job at a real bar, and how you can steadily advance your career.

Bartender Requirements

Bartending school can help you learn how to make a variety of cocktails

No matter which state you reside in, you’ll need to meet your state’s age requirements in order to become a bartender. The minimum age to serve alcohol can vary between 18 to 21, so don’t be discouraged if you’re not yet old enough to drink.

You’ll also need some basic soft skills to succeed in the job. For example, you should:

  • Have great people skills. You’ll be dealing with people from a wide variety of backgrounds and with varying personalities. Make sure you’re prepared to handle underage patrons, pushy customers, and people who may need to be cut off without causing a scene for everyone else. People skills will also help you earn tips, which can be a huge part of your income.
  • Understand the basic flavor profiles of drinks. This will be critical to help you sell to customers. If you’re not passionate about wine, cocktails, craft beer, or whatever drinks you’re primarily serving, it may not be the right fit.
  • Be attentive. Especially in popular and high-end bars, you’ll likely have to manage many tasks at once. You’ll need to remember all your orders, who ordered them, and how to make them.

Bartenders typically need to get a food handler’s card as well.

Bar managers will primarily look for these basic qualifications, usually with no educational requirements ⁠— some states may additionally require you to get a bartending license. States that require you to get a bartender’s license before you serve alcoholic beverages include Nevada, Washington, Arizona, and Oregon.

This license, sometimes known as a server permit, is different from a bartending certification you receive from a school.

The process to getting a server permit usually requires you to find an accredited school that fits your state laws, then complete a course that’s a couple hours long.

The primary purpose of this course is not to teach alcohol servers about drinks, but rather to provide responsible serving and alcohol awareness training so you meet local regulations.

Bartender Career Path

Bartending school can be a worthwhile investment

Once you meet basic requirements, you’re ready to apply for jobs in a bar environment. Few employers will hire you immediately as a bartender with zero experience, but they will take you on for other positions that allow you to advance to your coveted position.

Most bartenders will start out as barbacks, who basically act as bartenders’ assistants. Your primary duties may include bar set-up and basic inventory, but you’ll also get the chance to serve as backup and apply your drink knowledge on the job. This will make you a far more attractive candidate, as you’ll shadow and get to work hands-on with a lead bartender.

You’ll soon be able to take on basic bartender positions — especially if you express your interest from the start of your employment. As bartending becomes second nature to you and you gain more experience, you can apply for jobs at more competitive locations and innovate your own drinks if that’s what you like. Who knows? You may even open your own bar one day.

Frequently Asked Questions

Bartender spritzing an artisanal cocktail

Becoming a bartender is a great opportunity for night owls to enjoy a fun, overnight job that can pay fairly well, depending on your location. To help you better understand bartending expectations and opportunities, here are our answers to three common questions.

1. How much does bartending school cost?

A complete 40-hour course typically costs at least $200 and can be as pricey as $600. Aspiring bartenders should take this cost into account ⁠— as well as research what your local bars require from applicants ⁠— before investing in a school.

2. How much does a bartending license cost?

A bartender license is far cheaper than bartending school, since it’s composed of a relatively short course and is most often pursued due to state requirements. You can usually get your license for as little as $10, give or take.

3. How likely is it for me to land a job as a bartender?

Luckily for you, the demand for bartenders in the United States is rising. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates an 8% growth in less than a decade, which is faster than the majority of careers. This means now is a great time for you to chase after the positions you want.

However, people under 21 may have a tougher time finding employment as a bartender, even if your state allows you to serve alcohol.

This is because many bars and nightclubs impose their own rules against allowing anyone under 21 on their premises. Anyone who is underage may find more employment opportunities at restaurant bars or locations that will allow younger patrons in their location.

Start Your Career Behind the Bar

Bartending can be an excellent gig for anyone who needs extra cash or a career filled with advancement opportunities when you’re in it for the long-run.

Understanding the requirements you need to meet to become a bartender will help you meet your goals, no matter what they are. We hope this article inspires you to start your career path, whether it’s through a bartending school or through experience.

If you already have bartending experience and are looking for one-off gigs at your local dive bars, nightclubs, or restaurants, read our guide to Shiftgig to learn how the platform can make your bartending schedule even more flexible.

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